Balsam Lake, located deep within the Roy Taylor Forest section of the Nantahala National Forest, is the only public accessible lake of the area that is not owned by Duke Energy. In addition to being a top fishing destination, that is stocked with Rainbow Trout twice in the Spring and Summer seasons, this lake grants access to four breathtaking waterfalls: Balsam Falls, Lower Balsam Falls, Patricia Falls, and Lauren Falls.
While the hike may be short – about 2 miles roundtrip – it can be technical and strenuous. The trail is often overgrown, potentially hard to follow in places, steep, and requires some short scrambling/bushwhacking to reach the bases of all four waterfalls. Despite that, I think these sets of falls are some of the best in the area, and if you’re a strong hiker it can be a fairly short (half day) outing.
This hike begins at the Balsam Lake Recreation Area, located next to the Balsam Lodge, off of Charles Creek Road near Canada, NC.
The Balsam Lake Recreation Area features a nice picnic shelter, public restrooms, and a couple small trails that can all be seen from the parking lot. If you look west and towards the far side of the lake, there will be a foot bridge on your left that goes over Wolf Creek. This is where the Mallonee Trail and the hike begins. Follow the trail for about 0.5 miles around the lake, which ends at the dam on the far side. As you make your way down the trail, you’ll pass several fishing piers while catching glimpses of Balsam Lodge across the lake. Although small, the lake itself is quite beautiful and offers stunning reflection shot compositions.
Once at the dam, there will be a spur trail to your left that branches off and follows Wolf Creek down below the dam. The exact GPS for this point is (35.26745, -82.96925). Continue on this trail for just under 0.2 miles to reach the base of the first waterfall – Balsam Falls. Note that the final 30ft or so descends very steeply; be cautious as you scramble down the embankment.
Balsam Falls is a quant waterfall that drops about 25ft. Unfortunately, sometime in 2019 a large tree has fallen in front of the waterfall, obscuring much of the view. Photo ops here can be tricky and unless your willing to stand in near waist deep water, you’ll be limited to profile view compositions.
The next leg of the journey requires you to cross the plunge pool of Balsam Falls, where the trail will pick up again on the other side of the creek. The problem is, Lower Balsam Falls is about 20ft from Balsam and the shallowest part of the plunge pool is closer to the brink of the lower drop. To make matters more interesting, the rocks are exceptionally slippery here and a mistake could be fatal. In higher waters, this crossing is almost a guaranteed no-go. On my most recent visit in 2020, we visited in the highest flow I have ever seen on the creek. Luckily we had plans to rappel to the base of Laurens just for funsies, so I was able to safely cross using a handline clipped to my harness. Once across, I secured the line and the others in my group were able to directly clip into it with their harness – turning this into more of a via ferrata type crossing and effectively eliminating any dangers.
Once across, the trail will pick up and ascend a steep hillside. At the top, it connects onto a switchback of an old forest road. You’ll want to turn left here to continue following it downstream. In about 60ft you’ll come to a fork – stay left here. In another ~50ft, a steep spur path will fork left off the current trail you’re on and descend back down to the creek. This is the approach to reach the base of Lower Balsam Falls.
Lower Balsam took me several visits before I actually enjoyed this waterfall. Of the entire set of falls here, I always found this one least interesting.. and I am not exactly sure why I felt that way. After visiting it the first time, I kind of wrote it off and every visit since then I just usually skipped by this. But on my most recent visit in 2020, I went back down and found a whole new appreciation for this beautiful ~25ft drop. The plunge basin at the bottom is deep and would likely make a great swimming hole in the summer months.
Scramble back up the spur from the base of Lower Balsam then turn left, back onto the trail you were following, and continue to take it downstream. This is where things get dense. Compared to years ago, there has been a lot of dead fall and this section of the trail will have you climbing/crawling over the rhodo overgrowth. On my last visit, it looked like someone had tried to come through and trim it down, which did help tremendously, but it is still fairly dense. Just stay with the trail and path of least resistance as best as you can.
The trail will begin to descend down the hillside and parallel closer to the creek. In about 525ft from the spur that led down to Lower Balsam, you’ll cross a very small brook. Keep an eye out for the brook because that will be your que to cross Wolf Creek and begin your next descent to the base of Patricia Falls. When you cross the creek, you’ll see that immediately downstream it makes a sharp curve to the left. Make sure you cross before that point because the brink of Patricia is just beyond that curve. The trail will pick up on the river left side, but it can be a little tricky to spot at first. Right where the trail starts again, there is a very large and oddly flat rock that sticks out of the creek. That is what I’ve always used as my reference point to find the trail. On my last few visits, there was flagging tape consistently marking this point but I wouldn’t rely on it being there forever. The GPS for where the trail picks up again is (35.26461, -82.97036).
From here, you’ll need to swing wide and cross over a small ridge. In a few yards from the creek, the trail will fork – make sure you take the upper split to the left to cross over the ridge. It’ll get tight here and you’ll have to crawl under some dead fall. When you get to the profile brink of Patricia, around 125ft from the creek crossing, you’ll encounter a huge downed tree that fell a couple years ago. It’ll make traversing this section harder in the sense that it’s densely overgrown, but easier in the sense that you now have some hand holds to help you scramble down a small 10ft rock ledge. When you get down that first small section, you’re going to need to literally crawl under the branches of the dead fall on your right to reach the final scramble down a 15ft rock wall to the base. A lot of people find this to be daunting but the wall is more like a series of small ledges, which I use as steps to make the descent.
Patricia Falls is pristine. This 35ft drop has a very magical and awe-inspiring vibe to it. I would easily put this in my top 10 favorite waterfall list, potentially even in a top 5 favorite list. This beauty was originally discovered by THE waterfall authority in NC, Kevin Adams, but he originally kept it a secret for some time. He eventually decided to make it public and named this special waterfall after his wife. The base is covered in exquisite moss, so tread lightly and thoughtfully – this area demands the utmost care and respect.
The final waterfall, Laurens Falls, is about 30 yards downstream. Follow the creek on river left until you hit the brink. From there, it’s a short but dense bushwhack around the drop, on river left still, to reach an open rocky area near the base.
Laurens Falls, named after Kevin Adam’s stepdaughter, is another stunner. The rock wall and pothole features of the 30ft drop heavily reminds me of a smaller version of the nearby Wolf Creek Falls (more so known as Paradise Falls). The plunge basin can be deep, and the open rock you land on when you approach the base makes for a great jumping and swimming spot. For most people, reaching this point is good enough and it’s possible to get good photos from this vantage point. But to get the photo that is featured first in this report (and to see the whole scope of the waterfall), you’ll have to bushwhack even further to reach a neat, tiny island in the middle of the creek about a dozen yards downstream. I’ve done it only once, because the bushwhack is so dense and is absolutely horrendous. If you’re willing, it’s easier to scramble down the dead fall at the edge of the open rock and swim it. After enjoying these magnificent falls, backtrack your route up to Balsam Lake and back to the parking.